Restoration: Enduring Words

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Enduring Words

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Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is one of the great speeches of American history. Delivered by America's 16th president at the dedication of a military cemetery after a great Civil War battle, the speech is concise. Yet it captures the essence of the conflict that threatened the survival of the United States of America.

I had a chance recently to read a handwritten copy of the speech at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It is written on less than two sheets of stationery. Reading the speech in Lincoln's own hand lets you see the speech in a different light from the normal mode of text in a book. It gives you a sense of the time it took to carefully craft into precise words and phrases the central idea Lincoln wanted to convey on the awful battlefield of that great conflict.

Douglas Wilson writes in Lincoln's Sword that Lincoln knew that public opinion "always has a 'central idea,' from which all its minor thoughts radiate." In 1863 that central idea was whether all men were created equal. Thomas Jefferson had enshrined the idea in the Declaration of Independence when he penned, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Yet in Lincoln's day the country was tearing itself apart over the practical reality that all men were not treated as equals.

Slavery was the evil practice at the heart of the Civil War. Treating fellow humans as property, subhuman in theory and in practice, had torn the country in two. Lincoln understood the nation could not exist in a divided state, and he waged war to restore the union enshrined in the Constitution. He took the occasion of the cemetery dedication to give this speech that conveys a simple and eloquent truth.

He said, "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." What a noble thought—that men would die for deeply held beliefs. Yet what a tragic shame that this ideal is enshrined in the crucible of war. Better that men would live to make men free just as Christ today lives to make men holy!

Lincoln achieved his goal to focus the nation on the real reason for the war. He knew that courage and commitment alone weren't enough to sustain the people through the war. Fatigue sets in when casualties are counted. "Is it worth the cost?" people ask. "What are we fighting for?" Lincoln knew he had to cast a higher vision to sustain the effort. In the end he did. The Union was saved and America went on to become the prophesied great single world power (Genesis 48:12-19).

It takes vision to see beyond the moment and focus clearly on the promise of the future. To capture the central idea of the mission is a rare gift in a leader.

This is the season in America for political speeches. But will the ideas match the times in which we live? Global economic uncertainty coupled with the changing perception of America's leadership role are threatening to create a world order quite different from the present. The times call for words that lead us to the clarity and comfort of God's Word. Of human speeches there are many, but none offer the insight we get from the revealed words of the Bible. It is there we find God's "central idea" for all of us. There we find the reason for our life and the purpose God is bringing to pass.

Lincoln's words restored a sense of mission for a profound human effort. God's enduring Word offers the path for restoring lasting freedom for every human. Put your heart and mind to the study of those words, for they lead to eternal life as sons of glory. WNP